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Foods

Potatoes

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Only a few other foods are as nutritious, delicious, and versatile as the potato. Not only does a potato give you an energizing supply of complex carbohydrates, but it also provides protein and important vitamins and minerals, including potassium, vitamins B6 and C, copper, and manganese. For a substantial helping of fiber, eat potatoes with the skin.

The United States produces about 35 billion pounds of potatoes annually. Americans consume about 126 pounds per person per year, on average--far more than any other vegetable. In fact, simply by virtue of the quantities eaten, the potato is the leading source of vitamin C in the American diet. Unfortunately, about 65% of America's potatoes are not sold fresh, but in various "convenience" forms that increase the fat and sodium content.

Varieties

The world of potatoes divides into so-called waxy potatoes, starchy potatoes, and all-purpose potatoes. Waxy potatoes are better for boiling, starchy for baking, and all-purpose falls somewhere between the two (see "Preparation," below).

In addition, potatoes can be differentiated according to age. They may be sold soon after they are dug ("new" potatoes) or kept in cold storage for up to a year before sale. Only potatoes that are freshly harvested may be called "new." Many consumers believe that "new" simply denotes a small, round red or white potato, but true new potatoes have thin "feathering" skins that can be brushed off with your fingers. Mature potatoes, by contrast, have thick skins. True new potatoes, which are freshly dug potatoes, may be as small as marbles or full-sized. They have a high moisture and sugar content, so they cook quickly and have a delicately sweet flavor.

In the United States, the most common potato varieties grown commercially fall into one of four categories: Russets, long whites, round reds, and round whites. There is also a growing market for specialty potatoes.

Long russets: Typified by the Russet Burbank, they are the favorites among baking potatoes and are the leading variety grown. These large, ovoid potatoes, which can weigh over a pound apiece, have a sturdy brown skin with a meshlike netting on the surface, and starchy flesh. Most baking potatoes labeled "Idaho potatoes" are Russet Burbanks, though this does not actually mean they are from Idaho. Idaho certainly produces the lion's share of these potatoes, but russets can come from a number of other potato-growing states. The term "Idaho potato" is merely a tradition, and one that is disappearing as other states and local growers stake their claim to this classic baking potato.

Long whites: The White Rose is one of the better-known varieties of all-purpose potatoes. When new (freshly dug), they are thin-skinned and waxy; when mature, they are starchy and weigh an average of half a pound.

Round reds: These red, smooth-skinned potatoes, notably the Red LaSoda and Red Pontiac, are most commonly sold "new" (small and relatively young); when more mature, they are waxy and good for boiling.

Round whites: The Katahdin (the predominant variety grown in Maine) is representative of these multipurpose potatoes. They have a light tan skin and are smaller than the long whites, averaging three per pound.

Specialty potatoes: Uncommon potato varieties are sold at some supermarkets, specialty greengrocers, and farmers' markets. They include yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Finnish Yellow Wax, which has deep yellow flesh and a rich taste; and blue potatoes, such as Blue Carib and All Blue, which have grayish-blue skin, dark blue flesh, and a delicate flavor. The Rose Fir is a small, waxy potato with a pink to red skin. Farmers' markets also sell diminutive fingerling potatoes. About the size of a thumb, they cook in no time and have a firm texture and wonderful flavor.

Availability

Potatoes are harvested somewhere in the United States in every month of the year as they are a commercial crop in 48 states. They also keep well if stored under the proper conditions. As a result, there is an endless peak season, with no periods of short supply. The principal growing states with an autumn harvest include Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Maine, and New York; major winter and spring crops are harvested in the South and Southwest. New potatoes are not stored, but the overlapping growing seasons mean that they, too, may be found in stores throughout the year, though in limited quantities.

With potatoes so easy to obtain, canned potatoes should be used only in culinary emergencies. Although nearly the nutritional equivalent of boiled, peeled potatoes, they may contain more than 400 milligrams of sodium per cup, compared with about 6 milligrams of sodium per cup of freshly cooked potatoes.

Shopping

If possible, choose individual potatoes from a bulk display. Buy a large bag (five or 10 pounds) only if you can check the condition of the potatoes through the packaging--and if you are going to use them before they spoil. Look for clean, smooth, well-shaped potatoes. Potatoes should feel firm, the "eyes"--the buds from which sprouts can grow--few and shallow, and the skins free of cracks, wrinkles, or dampness. Reject potatoes with black spots, bruises, or other discolorations. Reject potatoes with a green tinge to the skin: This is an indication that solanine--a naturally occuring toxin--is present, a result of a potato's exposure to the sun (green-tinged potatoes are often called "sun-burned"). Also reject potatoes that are sprouting--a sprouting potato, though edible, has started to age and may contain increased amounts of solanine.

The USDA has established grades for potatoes, according to appearance and size. "U.S. Extra No. 1" is a premium grade, followed by "U.S. No. 1," which is the most common grade and denotes potatoes that have few defects and must be at at least 1 3/4" in diameter. However, grade labeling is not required, and many potatoes are not marked.

Storage

Few modern homes have root cellars, but a cool (45°F to 50°F), dark, dry place makes the best storage area, as warmth and moisture encourage sprouting, and direct sunlight can "sunburn" the potato (causing the potato skin to form a toxin called solanine). Don't put potatoes in the refrigerator, or store them at temperatures below 45°F. Their starch will turn to sugar, giving them an undesirable sweet taste (although leaving them at room temperature for a few days allows the sugar to turn back into starch). Keep the potatoes in a burlap, brown paper, or perforated plastic bag. Check them occasionally and remove any that have sprouted, softened, or shriveled; a bad one can adversely affect the condition of the others.

Mature potatoes will keep for up to two months under optimum conditions; new potatoes are more perishable and should be used within a week of purchase. Don't wash potatoes before storing, or they will spoil more quickly. And don't store onions together with potatoes: The gases given off by onions accelerate the decay of potatoes, and vice versa. Neither raw nor most cooked potatoes freeze well; however, mashed potatoes may be packed into containers and frozen.

Preparation

Nutritionally speaking, the less you do to potatoes, the better. The skin is an excellent source of fiber, so try to leave it on. But if you decide to peel it because you don't like the taste of the skin, do so carefully. Use a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler to remove the thinnest possible layer, and thus preserve the nutrients just below the skin. Better yet, simply scrub unpeeled potatoes under cold water before cooking; remove any sprouts, green spots, or deep eyes with a sharp paring knife.

Generally speaking, low-starch, high-moisture "waxy" potatoes, such as round reds, are best for boiling or steaming. They remain firm-textured when sliced or diced (before or after cooking), and are therefore a good choice for stews, casseroles, or salads in which you want the potato pieces to hold their shape. Starchy potatoes, such as Russet Burbanks, have a drier flesh. They turn out fluffy when baked or mashed and may fall apart if cut into chunks or slices after cooking. They are best used in soups and stews in which the potatoes are meant to break up and thicken the cooking liquid. All-purpose potatoes are sort of a compromise potato, neither too starchy nor too waxy.

Potatoes occasionally turn gray or dark after they are boiled; this color change may be caused by the conditions under which they were grown or stored. It's impossible to tell which potatoes will turn dark, but the discoloration does not affect flavor, texture, or nutritional value. Contact with aluminum or iron will also discolor potatoes, so cook them in stainless steel pots. For the same reason, raw potatoes should not be cut with a carbon steel (nonstainless) knife. If exposed to air, peeled raw potatoes will also discolor. Cook the potatoes immediately in a pot of water that has already been brought to a boil. And if you are interrupted while preparing them, place them in a bowl of cold water, then add a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar. This trick will help to keep the potatoes white.

Baking: Russets are truly the best for baking. Do not wrap them in foil, however, as the covering traps moisture, which will steam rather than bake the potatoes. Pierce their skin in a few places with a fork before baking; this allows steam to escape, thus producing dry, fluffy potatoes. Thick-skinned potatoes may actually burst if baked without piercing.

A large baking nail inserted lengthwise into a potato will conduct heat to the interior of the vegetable and speed the baking process. If you do not have one of these nails, use a metal skewer. Test for doneness by squeezing the potato: It should give slightly. Cooking time: 45 to 60 minutes in a 400°F oven.

Boiling: To help potatoes maintain their shape when boiling, especially if you are using an all-purpose potato, boil small to medium-sized potatoes whole. Cut larger ones into halves or quarters and leave the skins on; if you want to remove the skins for eating, they will slip off easily after cooking, while the potatoes are still warm.

To keep unpeeled potatoes from bursting, pare a band of skin around the circumference with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Place the potatoes into boiling water (not cold water) to retain more of the vitamin C. (Adding garlic, onion, or herbs to the water will give the boiled potatoes a subtle flavor.) Cover and cook until the potatoes can be easily pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. Drain the potatoes, return them to the pot, and toss gently over the still-warm burner to dry them. Cooking times: for small potatoes, 10 to 15 minutes; for cut-up potatoes, 15 to 20 minutes; for medium to large whole potatoes, 20 to 40 minutes.

Microwaving: Pierce the potatoes several times with a fork as they can explode if the skins are left intact. If microwaving a single potato, place in the center of the oven; for two or more, place in a circle or spoke pattern. Turn or rotate the potatoes halfway through cooking time; wrap or cover after removing them from the oven and let stand for five minutes. Cooking times: for one 8-ounce potato, five minutes; for two potatoes of that size, 10 minutes; for four potatoes, 15 minutes.

Steaming: This method conserves more nutrients than boiling, since the potatoes are in minimal contact with water. Arrange a single layer of small, whole potatoes, thick slices, or chunks in a steamer basket and cook over boiling water. Cooking times: for cut-up potatoes, 15 to 20 minutes; for whole ones, 30 to 40 minutes.

Mashed potatoes: For fluffy mashed potatoes, boil and dry baking or all-purpose potatoes as directed above. Don't overbeat the potatoes or mash them in a food processor, which will turn them gummy. Use a potato masher, food mill, or a hand-held electric mixer.

Nutrition Chart

Potato/1 medium baked with skin

133
Total fat (g)
0.1
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
2.9
3
Carbohydrate (g)
31
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
10
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.4
Vitamin C (mg)
16
Copper (mg)
0.4
Manganese (mg)
0.3
Potassium (mg)
510


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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